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Maladaptive Behaviors: Using Alcohol and Other Drugs to Relieve Anxiety


Updated May 21, 2009

Often used to reduce anxiety, maladaptive behaviors often result in dysfunctional and non-productive outcomes. If you experience frequent panic (anxiety) attacks and have been diagnosed with panic disorder or another anxiety disorder, you may have inadvertently developed maladaptive patterns of behavior to cope with your situation.

People with anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and agoraphobia[/link">, sometimes use alcohol or other substances as a means of coping with fear and anxiety. Some studies show that people with anxiety disorders are up to three times more likely to have an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder than those without an anxiety disorder. Abusing alcohol or other drugs to control stress and anxiety is classified as a maladaptive behavior because it provides only temporary relief from anxiety and actually may create more long-term problems. Substance abuse does not fix the underlying problem, and long-term alcohol or drug abuse can lead to tolerance, dependence, and for some, addiction.

Tolerance can result from using a drug over an extended period of time. The result of tolerance is that the drug does not produce the desired effect or the effect is diminished. Tolerance may mean increasing the amount of the drug to produce the desired effect.

Physical dependence to a drug often includes tolerance and can be identified by withdrawal symptoms if the drug is abruptly stopped or decreased. Common withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol or other drug dependence may include:

  • anxiety
  • diarrhea/stomach upset
  • insomnia
  • muscle cramps
  • headache
  • decreased concentration
  • rapid breathing
  • tremors
  • seizures

Drug addiction is a brain disease identified by components of physical and psychological dependence. Detoxification can result in the end of physical dependence, but the psychological component maintains a steadfast hold on the addict. It is this component that makes maintaining sobriety so difficult for sufferers. There is no cure for addiction and maintaining sobriety is usually an ongoing quest for those afflicted.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, drug addiction differs from drug dependence and drug tolerance. Not all people who develop tolerance or physical dependence to a drug will go on to develop addiction. It is believed that certain individuals are predisposed or vulnerable to addiction based on biological, psychological and social influences.

Getting Help for Substance Abuse

Maladaptive behaviors refer to types of behaviors that inhibit a person’s ability to adjust to particular situations. Maladaptive behaviors are never good because they prevent people from adapting to the demands of life. Initially, excessive use of alcohol or other drugs may seem to provide relief from anxiety. Unfortunately, long-term effects of substance abuse are not so pleasant.

If you have an anxiety disorder and are abusing alcohol or other drugs, you should talk to your doctor or therapist. Although this abuse may be the result of a a self-medicating measure, it is likely that it will cause you far more distress in the long run.


Anxiety Disorders Association of America. 2007 “Anxiety Disorders and Alcohol Abuse.”

Brady MD PhD, Kathleen, Tolliver MD PhD, Bryan and Verdiun MD, Marcia. “Alcohol Use and Anxiety: Diagnostic and Management Issues” 2007 Am J Psychiatry 164:217-221.

Longo, Lance P., MD and Johnson, Brian, MD. “Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines--Side Effects, Abuse Risk and Alternatives.” American Academy of Family Physicians. 01 Apr 2000. 2121-2131.

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